Car Country: An Environmental History, by Christopher W. Wells
I have to have a grudging degree of respect for an author like this one, who seeks to split the difference between the thesis that America’s transportation infrastructure is so car-oriented because Americans like it that way and the many writers from an environmental perspective who view it as something that was forced on the American people by car companies and oil companies and the like. The author does a good job at demonstrating the slow acceptance of the desirability of new roads and centrally controlled transportation planning on the part of rural American in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, the author is honest enough to point out that the decisive move towards a car culture was heavily influenced by the fact that cars were already massively popular at the time, and that politicians were simply acting according to the wishes of their constituents, to say nothing of corporate conspiracies against light-rail. Quite bluntly, a high degree of car ownership led to a strong degree of public pressure on government agencies to provide good roads (if not necessarily maintain them well) and simultaneously allowed for low-density construction that made light rail inefficient and that made people in large areas very car-dependent.
This particular book of about 300 pages is divided into 4 parts and 7 chapters with other material. The book begins with a foreword by William Cronon and then moves on to an acknowledgments section. After that there is a prologue about what it means to be an American and to want and expect a car of one’s own. After this the author looks at America before the automobiles (I) and the state of roads and road reformers from 1880-1905 (1). This leads into a look at the dawn of the motor age (II), with chapters on automotive pioneers like Ford and Oldsmobile (2) as well as what it meant to build for traffic (3). The first photo gallery follows after this, and then Part Three looks at the creation of car country between 1919 and 1941 (III), with chapters on motor-age geography (4), the importance of gasoline (5), and the paths out of town (6). This leads to the second photo gallery as well as the final part of the book, which discusses the new patterns, standards, and landscapes in America from 1940 to 1960 (IV), when America was turned into a suburban nation (7). The book then conclude with an epilogue about reaching for the car keys as well as notes, a bibliography, and an index.
What is it that makes the United States such a car country? It is more than the fact that the United States has a lot of cars, but also the way that instead of high-density settlements that the United States has a rather dispersed sort of development, not only with suburbs being more desirable than inner city cores (the reverse of most of the world), but also with regards to cities being in many cases (especially in the West) quite far from each other. To be sure, American transportation and housing patterns could not have developed as they did without official sanction, at least in the formal way that they happened, but these trends were not merely pushed by companies involved in selling cars and their fuel, but also came from people who themselves enjoyed the freedom and mobility that cars allowed. As someone whose mobility is not always as good as I would like it to be, I can definitely appreciate the desire on the part of people to be free from the forced intimacy of high-density housing and transportation planning involving subways or surface rail. All too often books are written by people who have an ax to grind against cars and car culture and it shows. If this author wishes things were another way, at least he is honest enough to show what the facts are as well.